Salina Chatlain stars in Montana Rep Missoula’s production of Rabbit Hole.
The idea of parallel worlds can be a little mind-boggling. A separate universe where anything is possible and every possible path does exist? Tough to wrap your head around, but intriguing. In another universe you did drop out of college and bike around the world. You did win the lottery. In another universe you decide not to go to that Halloween party, subsequently never drinking too much beer and breaking a Venetian vase, and never having to endure the yelling from that jerk dressed up as a giant carrot. Wouldn’t that universe be nice?
But then again, if none of that happened you’d never make friends with the carrot guy later, and he wouldn’t have fixed your bike one day, and then you wouldn’t have eventually moved with him to the countryside. So, you never know. In this universe you take the good with the bad. And sometimes that means your good times are suddenly stunted by inescapable, infinite pain.
That’s the case in Rabbit Hole, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by the normally comedic David Lindsay- Abaire and directed for Montana Rep Missoula by local drama professor Stacy Ohrt-Billingslea. The story begins mid-way through the lives of a couple whose 4-year-old son, Danny, has been struck and killed by a car. Becca, the mother, folds her son’s clothes getting them ready to give away. The father, Howie, spends his time in the dark illuminated only by a flicker of light coming from old videos of Danny running and playing.
When the couple isn’t talking about the death, it still hovers over them, coloring every word they say with blame or despair, sometimes tenderness. Their lives become a landscape of grief. When they do talk about it, they review the event, rewinding it as though knowing the exact details of the tragedy and exploring the what-if scenarios will give them entry into an alternative outcome.
Playing a character that grieves through the entire stretch of a play can’t be easy. It requires nuance and an ability to reel in the audience and induce empathy rather than merely evoke distanced sympathy. Salina Chatlain holds the reins fairly tight on Becca. She carefully unfolds her character’s grief, lets herself fall apart at significant moments and, at other times, suffers almost imperceptibly. She can smile and yet we understand she isn’t happy.
Geoff Pepos’ Howie doesn’t overdo it either, but he’s opaque. We know Howie is sad because he lost his son, and other times we know he’s angry because he’s yelling. But the cues beyond those two basic emotions fall flat because the subtle difference between angry-sad, angry-defensive, hurt-sad and any other combination that is vital to the dialog between Howie and Becca all feel the same.
Extraordinary moments do happen in this production, but usually with comedic characters like Becca’s sister Izzy, played by Staci Weigum. She charmingly wrinkles her nose at what she doesn’t like. She stops and starts dialog with contagious exuberance and, other times, sheepishness. When she finally wants to be taken seriously, we see her as someone who makes mistakes but has good intentions.
The real force of this play is scene-stealer Teresa Waldorf as Becca’s mother. Her comedic timing rings of a “Mad TV” character without being a caricature. She drinks too much wine and talks about celebrity airplane wrecks in a loud Midwest accent. “It’s sad,” she says. “All those good-looking people falling out of the sky. It’s a waste.”
Maybe comic characters are easier to latch onto in such a bleak situation, but I think it’s more than that. Even when Waldorf isn’t speaking you’re drawn to her, glasses perched at the end of her nose looking puzzled or scoffing. In one scene, after she’s consumed her wine, she helps Becca sort through Danny’s toys. Waldorf plays her emotional cards like a pro—still funny and passive-aggressive, but tender, too. And when Becca asks her if grief ever goes away Waldorf has built her character up so complexly that she gives you goose bumps when she replies, “It becomes bearable, something you can come out from under and carry around with you. It’s not that you like it, but it’s what you have.”
It’s too bad that we don’t get a better sense of Howie and Becca’s relationship in this production. It seems to shrink from existence without a sense that it ever did exist and, worse, it’s hard to care about it. More powerful is Becca’s relationship to Jason, the high school kid who hit and killed Danny. He shows up at the family’s home with a story he wrote dedicated to Becca’s late son. It’s a sci-fi story about a scientist who explores the idea of parallel universes–rabbit holes—in order to find one in which his deceased father is still living. This is the most touching part of all: Jason’s need for redemption gives way to a faith—and science—that Becca can finally imagine. Even if her son no longer exists in her world, he almost certainly lives somewhere else and, in that place, she can imagine being happy. In Rabbit Hole, it’s moments like these, moments that seem both plausible and illuminating, that make it worth watching.
Rabbit Hole continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, April 23, through Saturday, April 25, at 8 PM. $10 on Thursday, $15 Friday and Saturday.î